Hip hop has become so much a part of the musical mainstream and American pop culture that it might be tough for younger Artists to remember a time when it wasn’t that way.  Artists like Andre 3000, Mariah Carey, Ja Rule, Ice T, Xzibit, Ice Cube, Snoop, Method Man, Big Boi, DMX, 50 cent, Ludacris, Mobb Deep, Nas, Eminem, T.I., Tyrese, Common, Mos Def, Queen Latifah, Ladies Love Cool James (LL Cool J in case you’re from Mars), even Diddy…hell…even Marky Mark all owe a tip of the cap to Chris Lighty for what he did for them directly or indirectly.  Beginning in the 1980’s, Chris Lighty was incredibly influential in the business of music and was right up until last Thursday.

Unfortunately, Chris was found dead in his home and I would argue that hip hop lost one of it’s most powerful figures that will be probably go largely unsung because he’s not a household name.  The circumstances of his death aren’t important or relevant for this post, though you can read all about it here if you’d like.  Why am I writing about this?  Because he defined success in business terms for the Artists that he worked with and above all else, his people got paid.  Lighty learned early on where the power at the time was in the music business and he wanted to be involved with the people who offered music contracts, not the Artists that signed them.

Will Smith might be the only guy with a legit claim to making cash as a rapper/actor/endorsement buy before Lighty got LL that Gap commercial in 1997 that blew up the barrier between urban Artists and suburban wallets.  Lighty helped 50 cent ink a deal with Vitamin Water, the biggest in hip hop to date, that put $100 million in 50’s pocket when Coca Cola bought the brand in 2004.  He got endorsement and product placement deals worth millions for his clients at Violator Entertainment like Busta Rhymes, A Tribe Called Quest and Swizz Beatz.  He got Sprite to pay Missy Elliot six figures to jump around in front of a green screen in a track suit for an hour!

How did he do it?

He earned his chops early by carrying crates for DJ Red Alert in the 80’s and catching the attention of a budding entrepreneur named Russell Simmons (you know who he is, right?).  According to most of what you’ll find online, he worked his tail off and had a pretty healthy chip on his shoulder.  If you dig deeper you’ll also learn that he was a tough negotiator that never undervalued his people but was loved by everyone on both sides of the table.  He knew how to ask for what he wanted and humble himself to get the job done.  There’s a great story about how when he was managing Warren G, he wanted Nate Dogg (then on Death Row with Suge Knight) to be in the video.  Things got heated when Knight wouldn’t let Nate Dogg appear in the video, leading to a near ass-kicking for Lighty.  After pulling himself together, he went to the Death Row office, left with a handshake and Nate Dogg was on set 30 minutes later.

Kobe, Lebron James, Kevin Durant and all the young mega-millionaires of the NBA have Jordan, Magic and Bird to thank for their insanely lucrative contracts.  EVERYONE in hip hop, and I’d argue in music at large, should be aware of how much Chris Lighty did to the economics of the music business on behalf of Artists. Tip your cap to a legend, keep working hard and remember that your work ethic will carry you further than everything else put together.

Q: What’s the difference between an amateur and a pro?

A: Pro’s gets paid.


 Image: JHALLRADIO via Flickr

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